We’ve hiked through a variety of Arizona canyon country over the last few years.
Some of it crowded, like our mob-infested mid-October foray through Havasu Canyon. Some of it desolate, like the rugged solitude of the Eastern Superstitions. But our recent trip through Aravaipa Canyon was in a league all its own.
Of all the descriptors we uttered while navigating the canyon, I think my buddy Dustin came up with the best one: “Underrated.”
The 19,410 acre Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is a little slice of heaven tucked away in the crevices of a shallow plateau in Southeastern Arizona. In an arid region tread heavily by the earth-scarring boots of open-pit mining, Aravaipa’s pristine wilderness and clear-running stream make for a refreshing retreat from the surrounding landscape.
Here, a spring-fed creek sweeps calmly through a thousand-foot-deep canyon. The stoic silhouettes of Saguaros guard the slopes of the canyon walls as sheer faces of billion-year-old rock form the upper ramparts towering into the sky.
Along the creek, a riparian zone features greenery in major conflict with all of Arizona’s most unfair stereotypes. Not to be misrepresented, the creek itself is of a mellow disposition. It lacks the dramatic waterfalls of its more famous cousins, yet is nearly as photogenic as it curves gracefully through its canyon.
The spring-fed perennial creek creates a desert oasis accessible year-round.
It’s all that and a bag of chips, but not too many know about it. Our buddy Kevin hadn’t even heard of the place until I snagged the hiking permit, but boy was he glad we invited him along.
Speaking of permits, Aravaipa’s splendor is enjoyed by permit only. Under the Bureau of Land Management, the wilderness is limited to fifty visitors per day. As such, getting in during the best weather and peak of visitation (March, April, October, and November) is a tough proposition. However, we went in mid-February, had no problem grabbing a permit, and saw maybe fifteen other people over a three-day period.
Day 1: Entering Aravaipa
Blue skies and mild temperatures greeted us as we rolled into the dusty West Aravaipa Trailhead. Our band of five amigos strapped on our gear-jammed backpacks and careened off the lip of a rocky, cactus-clad hillside. A rough trail led us a few hundred yards down to the waters of Aravaipa Creek.
As we walked upstream, it was like something out of an Allman Brothers song. With the parched desert hills still visible in the distance, the land before us suddenly sprang lush.
As lush as it can be in early February, at least.
Stands of deciduous trees packed the creek’s banks. Species of alder, cottonwood, sycamore, walnut, and willow call Aravaipa home.
Unlike most places north of the tropics, spring comes early in the Sonoran Desert. Many trees were still bare while others sprouted little green buds. Undoubtedly, we arrived just a week or two away from full foliage.
A social trail guided us onward. Often the footpath wandered among the reeds growing along the bank. Other times, it would simply vanish, leaving us to walk against the current through the loose gravel of the creekbed.
In the cool morning temps and shade cast by the overhanging trees, the water felt brisk. No stranger to chilly off-season creek walking, I embraced the chance to play in the water. Others in our party preferred to stay high and dry as much as possible.
If the creek turned suddenly, a faint trail might shortcut through the brush of a nearby hillside. The shortcut was usually a good choice but sometimes meant fighting through the gnarly talons of catclaw acacia or ungracefully climbing over fallen trunks.
For the first mile and a half, the canyon bottom was fairly wide, with a few hundred yards of floodplain belying the creek on either side before giving way to desert foothills. But after the first stretch, suddenly the canyon’s walls closed in on the waterway.
No longer simply walking along a pleasant creek, a dramatic canyonscape unveiled itself before us.
My camera stayed in my bag thus far. But when I laid eyes on a jagged set of parallel purple-gray rock walls encasing the creek in a narrow slot, I knew an iPhone photo just wouldn’t do. Only a hundred yards upstream from where we dropped our packs for a break, I once again laid down my pack just to dig out my camera.
From here on I had a camera in my right hand and a hiking pole in my left, snapping photos as we continued into the heart of Aravaipa’s beauty.
At each turn, we met more eye candy: the creek’s balletic cascades at our feet, the golden cliffs soaring overhead, the unflappable cottonwoods guarding the creek and the spindly saguaros guarding the clifftops.
Somewhere along this stretch, Dustin and I conversed about the beauty before us when he said, “This place is definitely underrated.”
His comment gave me pause. My mind instantly filled with memories and mental snapshots of hiking in creeks that matched the splendor of Aravaipa.
Many of them, like Havasupai or Zion Narrows, featured crowds just as much as majesty. Others, like Hermit Creek or Reavis Falls, featured vast solitude but required much more physical and emotional abuse than what Aravaipa dealt us in the first two miles.
Magic defined these walls and waters, yet hardly another soul was to be found. Yes, underrated indeed.
After a couple more miles of tromping through stream and brush, we were on the lookout for a campsite. Not just any old campsite, but one that spoke to us as a place to call home for the next couple days.
We also had practical criteria. Paul and I were prepared to hammock camp and needed trees at correct distances apart between which to hang.
After passing a couple sites not up to snuff, we found a winner. Just upstream from an idyllic narrow passage in the canyon, an intimate campsite sat waiting for us atop a nearby bank.
Surrounded by overhanging willows, the sandy platform overlooked a gentle stretch of creek and a picturesque set of cliff faces beyond. With just enough room to easily fit three tents and two hammocks, this campsite revealed itself as more than satisfactory.
Still early afternoon, we set up camp in quick time and gathered some firewood to fuel the feast planned for later that evening.
Following the day’s chores and a few hours of relaxing, the shade of late-day engulfed most of the canyon while a few west-facing walls glowed gold in the soon-to-be-setting sun. My favorite time of day upon us, a few of us went upstream to explore and take photos.
Exploring Near Virgus Canyon
Once again, every turn of the creek revealed its own brand gorgeous character. The trees mostly still bare, the real show was at our feet. Golden reflections on the gently flowing waters mimicked the honeyed hues of the sunlit cliffs above.
In harmony with the creek’s luminous show, lush stretches of watercress ground cover provided splashes of green between the rocks and cascades.
Paul and I lagged behind. Each scene called like a siren’s song, begging for a photograph to document its dance of form and light. In between the fire of camera shutters, our eyes glazed over in awe of the placid beauty.
Ahead of us, Dustin and Kevin discovered a rugged cliff face pockmarked with handholds ripe for a bouldering session. Kevin stood at the cliff’s foot, grinning as he peered upward, but Dustin was nowhere to be seen.
All of a sudden a human head appeared from behind a ragged pinnacle, twenty-five feet above the canyon floor. Scaling delicately down the pinnacle’s eastern slope, Dustin’s path was obstructed by a person-sized drop to the sandy floor. Without missing a beat, he took a flying leap off the ledge and landed in stride on the flat bottom.
To be sure, Aravaipa is a playground for all kinds of adventure.
We ventured a bit further upstream as I wanted a peek at the mouth of Virgus Canyon. As we approached the confluence between Aravaipa and its largest tributary, the boulders strewn about the bed became noticeably larger and the creek’s path more winding and cascading.
This is the telltale sign of the confluence of two rivers. The occasional flash floods ripping through these canyons during the summer Monsoons often drive massive amounts of sediment downstream. Where one canyon enters another, the floods dump their load of mud, gravel, and boulders into the main current.
On larger rivers — like the mighty Colorado — this forms a rapid. In smaller streams like Aravaipa, it creates a subtly more rugged canyon floor.
The others called to turn back due to the diminishing light, but I begged them to wait while I took a few more steps up to the meeting of waters.
Aravaipa Creek lapped at my feet as I looked up into the brush-choked gulch of Virgus Canyon. A thick network of tree branches – only a few clad with leaves – obscured the view.
Further exploration would be challenging, and not smart given the rapidly evaporating daylight.
I wondered if water flowed among such a vegetated canyon. A water source gushing from the earth and flora was not obvious but showed itself as a mere trickle leaking from a small, stagnant pool into that of Aravaipa.
Satisfied with my sleuthwork, I walked the few dozen yards back to a large set of boulders where the other fellas waited. Kevin perched himself on a man-sized rock, and I scaled up next to him.
With a commanding view downstream, the scene before me took my breath away. The creek snaked in a curvaceous S, set aglow with pinkish gold reflections. Green patches of watercress lined in the sides of the curves like something out of a Bob Ross painting. I fumbled around in my pack to pull out my trusty telephoto lens and snapped off an exposure.
On the way back to camp, I once again lagged behind, stopping two or three times to photograph long exposures of the creek’s reflections in their peak form
In the final stretch back to camp, I rolled my left ankle a bit coming down a rock stairway but pulled my leg back up in time to avoid a spill. At the time it seemed like nothing — a near miss even — but would become a different story the next day.
We returned to camp with invigorated spirits. Darkness descended in finality, bringing a nip to the air. In response, we built a campfire. Not only for warmth, light, and vitality but to cook the night’s dinner.
As we waited patiently for the flaming wood pieces to become coals, a friendly but boisterous banter filled the canyon air. To liven the atmosphere further, bottles of rum and gin were passed around in the fire’s glow.
When the embers matured, Gil unveiled his stash of raw carne asada, flour tortillas, and homemade salsa.
A forked branch became a makeshift rotisserie. Hand-holding the beef over the coals revealed itself to be tedious as the meat cooked slowly. Patience proved fruitful, however, as the tender steak wrapped in a fire-roasted tortilla and drizzled with salsa was a feast worthy of the Gods.
Day 2: Further Exploration
I awoke the next morning to chilly temperatures. Ever the passionate landscape photographer, I itched to get up and take advantage of the even morning light, but the warmth of my hammock cocoon held me hostage.
Once the other guys showed signs of life, I got up the motivation to escape my hammock’s clutches. Gathering together my camera and tripod, my morning’s excursion was only delayed as Kev chatted me up about my hammock setup.
Remembering some impressive stands of watercress on the hike in, I chose to head downstream.
While the morning air felt brisk, the creek proved frigid. My feet tingled with pins and needles as I tramped the quarter mile to the watercress fields.
The westward flowing creek hooked a sharp left, turning south for a brief stretch below a band of dark and clefted cliffs. In spectacular fashion, the creek flows directly adjacent to a sheer cliff rising vertically straight out of the water’s edge.
Here, the creek split in two. Bisecting the stream, an overgrown layer of lush, ankle-deep watercress infests a shallow island. Watercress is an invasive species, and these uncontrolled expanses of it choke out native plants. It’s beautiful, but not altogether beneficial to the fragile Aravaipan ecosystem.
Reminiscent of the previous evening, the sunlight-bathed cliffs above created golden reflections in the brisk waters.
After a few minutes of experimenting with photographic compositions, I took a moment to absorb the majesty with my own eyes. A sense of peace and contentment washed over me as I was overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the creekscape. It is those moments that draw me back to the wilderness again and again.
My feet no longer hurt from the cold but felt numb – my body’s clue to return to camp and warm up. I shook off nature’s trance and rambled back upstream.
In Search of Bighorn
Once the day warmed up, it was time again for group exploration. With work commitments calling back in civilization, Kevin packed up and hiked out, but the rest of us prepared for a day hike.
Snacks and water in tow, we again ventured deeper into the depths of the wild. As we negotiated the social trails and creek crossings toward Virgus Canyon, I noticed an increasingly nagging pain in my ankle.
The rolled ankle incident from the previous evening proved to be more serious than originally thought. To add insult to injury, a backpack malfunction spilled the entire contents of my pack into the creek, including a camera body and three lenses.
Not to have my trip ruined by injury or damaged gear, I decided to grin and bear it. More of Aravaipa’s paradise lay ahead, and I must enjoy it.
Dustin helped me collect my waterlogged belongings, and we caught up to Gil and Paul a few hundred yards upstream. Gil’s grizzled stare scoured the canyon walls for signs of bighorn sheep.
Not a quarter mile from the Virgus confluence, the canyon floor opened in a broad flat named Horse Camp. Tall and majestic cottonwood trees towered over some very, very sweet campsites.
While satisfied with our own site, we couldn’t help but ogle the copious open space for pitching tents and many options for hanging hammocks.
Then Gil got his wish: a bighorn sheep stoically watching us from atop a cliff a few hundred yards away.
We stood in awe of the creature and its calm gaze. After a couple minutes of snapping iPhone terrible photos (my telephoto lens was pretty damp) and enjoying the sheep, we continued through the meadows.
Horse Camp’s string of sites lasted about a quarter mile before a good-sized side canyon opened up to the north.
Looking to limit walking on my injured ankle, I decided to take a rester while the others explored Horse Camp Canyon. At this confluence, an especially idyllic mix of watercress, gurgling water, sandy beach, and towering canyon walls made for an enticing place to lie down.
As the guys ventured off into the chasm, I laid out the water-soaked contents of my pack to dry. Propping my wadded flannel shirt on a rock as a pillow, I kicked back to enjoy the solitude.
As much as I love backpacking with my friends, there’s nothing quite like sitting out by yourself and absorbing the sights and sounds of the wild.
The fellas returned a half an hour later with positive reviews regarding the water pockets and slickrock they found up in the side canyon. Heading back to our basecamp, we hit the bighorn sheep jackpot.
Up on the cliffs where we spotted the one earlier, an entire herd lazily grazed upon the desert shrubs. At least a dozen bighorns formed a loose bunch wandering a rocky slope just below the cliff’s capstone.
One mighty ram with a massive set of spiral horns lounged on a large rock, radiating a cool but confident dominion over his group.
This time we all sat down on a nearby log to enjoy the show. After a good fifteen minutes of enjoying a voyeuristic look into the lives of the bighorns, we made the final stroll back to camp.
The Final Hurrah
Another lazy afternoon commenced at our modest campsite, each passing moment punctuated by an exaggerated snore echoing from Paul’s hammock. His thick Ohioan blood was no match for the lullaby of the creek during the warmest time of the day.
I lazed in my own hammock with my foot elevated to reduce the swelling. Removing my shoes and socks, a tender spot on the front of my ankle revealed what I hoped was just a minor sprain.
Gil and I chatted over the intermittent cacophony of Paul sawing logs while Dustin ventured up a nearby hillside to scramble into some caves.
As the afternoon slipped away, the evening’s chores were in order. I felt useless as the others reconvened to collect firewood and pump fresh water from the stream.
The wind blew up and some wispy clouds floated across the sky. While we had not seen rain in the weather forecast, I wondered if the forecast had changed in the two days since.
As such, Paul and I pitched tarps over our previously open-air hammocks just in case.
Another fire was built to kick off the night’s festivities.
Remembering the previous night’s difficulties, Gil brainstormed a better way to barbecue the other half of the carne asada.
In the meantime, dusk settled on the canyon and an errant cloud turned pink over the western cliffs. My injury be damned, I limped down to the creekside with a camera and tripod to capture the colorful scene.
When I returned, Gil had found two curved logs which he placed straddling the firepit like a woodworker setting up sawhorses. Across the span, he arranged an overlapping lattice of twigs, creating a makeshift grill over the blaze.
In a moment of childish excitement, Paul exclaimed, “I wish I would’ve thought of that!”
The grill stood just high enough to avoid catching fire, but just low enough for the steak roast nice and slow.
As we waited for the night’s ration of carne asada to cook, we worked on polishing off the night’s ration of liquor.
Impassioned conversations filled the time until the meat finished cooking. Another unbeatable feast commenced. We emptied the Kraken a short while later.
As bedtime approached, we planned for an early exit the next morning.
Our concern for rain proved unwarranted as we awoke to a cool, dry canyon morning. My ankle still hurting, I hoped to break camp first and get a head start on the others.
The injury betrayed me, and the limp slowed me to the point of being the last one ready to hike out. I wrapped the ankle in an ace bandage and immediately felt much more stable.
My camera stayed in my pack as I wanted both trekking poles in hand. The creek greeted us with cold water, but it actually felt good on my swollen ankle.
Despite my awkward gait, I managed to keep up with the others as we hiked at a moderate and steady pace. Hiking with the current instead of against certainly quickened our speed versus the hike in.
The constantly evolving canyonscape was just as enjoyable on the hike out, and I made a point to appreciate it as our return to the bustle of civilization was imminent.
To walk without pain, I could not put weight on my heel, so my left foot tippy-toed most of the way out. After three miles of this dance, my calf started to cramp. As we left the canyon’s narrows, I became eager to reach the car.
I pushed on through the creek knowing this was the home stretch, and we eventually reached a sign pointing us up the rocky trail to the hilltop.
Within minutes I hobbled up to my dark gray 4Runner as Dustin gave me a high five.
This wasn’t the hardest trip we’d done, or the most “epic”, but it had its own set of challenges. But more importantly, it featured its own unique combination of beauty and solitude. Our memories of Aravaipa Canyon will be forever unforgettable.